By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
I’ve taught English 101 and public speaking for many years. A key element of both classes is the ability to make a clear, succinct and convincing argument.
Making a solid argument is the ultimate transferrable skill – it is useful, if not essential, in any given situation from deciding what to do on a weekend to asking for a raise at work.
Central to making a strong argument is the avoidance of making a weak argument. And a key strategy to winning an argument is to recognize and expose the weakness – or fallacy – behind your opponent’s argument.
At least that’s how it is supposed to work – and how, for the most part, it has worked since the time of Socrates and Plato.
I used to spend a lot of time on the most common logical fallacies – those statements inherently false or self-contradictory.
I was convinced that if students could recognize fallacious reasoning in their opponent’s – or even in their own – arguments, that they would make more solid and convincing arguments themselves.
But it almost never happened.
And now, with a little perspective, (most of that time filled with inane, preposterous and outright false statements from politicians and other public figures) I see that I was fighting the ultimate lost cause.
Unlike the historic lost cause of the Confederacy of the mid-nineteenth century, for example which fought and articulated a defense of “state’s rights’ and the right to “own” other human beings, my “lost cause” was the defense of clarity and coherence in presenting and defending a position – in any context and on any topic.
But it was still a lost cause.
And like the dispute over state’s rights, the struggle between clear and muddled arguments, and truth and deception continues.
I now realize that being exposed to logical fallacies will not, like a vaccine, give one an immunity to bad arguments.
Bad, weak and blatantly false arguments are so much of our cultural fabric that we barely recognize them, or if we do, we passively, if not fatalistically, accept them.
If false arguments match our preferences we are glad to go along with them, and if the false or misleading statements come from someone we don’t agree with, we easily dismiss them.
Either way, we get in the habit of being intellectually lazy – if not cynical.
Sales people and politicians (literally) bank on our numb passivity – our acquired habit of acquiescence and acceptance of obviously false statements, promises or claims.
Logical fallacies have become, not something to recognize and avoid, but have somehow become the premise, if not core avenue of making virtually every argument.
Logical fallacies have become embraced and currently embody the very fabric of our everyday and public discourse.
We were advised to take a certain flamboyant presidential candidate “seriously, not literally.”
In other words, we were supposed to take his “message” seriously, without believing (or noticing) his misleading or false statements.
Apparently I am too old or traditional to even understand what that even means, but I do know that in personal relationships or in human history, taking someone “seriously, not literally” will never end well.
Whether you are talking about a cheating partner, an alcoholic or a world leader, to accept their lies only digs you deeper into their web of deception and self-destruction.
And so, my defense of truth, civility and coherence, however lost, continues.
As I mentioned, logical fallacies have become embraced. We see and hear them every day. Many public speakers, politicians in particular, veer from one to the other, contradicting themselves and defying common sense (if not basic decency) multiple times in one speech – sometimes even within the same sentence.
I want to emphasize that a logical fallacy is a hole in your argument; it is false, empty and weak – it is a reliance on something inherently untrustworthy and unreliable.
As common as these logical fallacies are, I urge you, in fact I (almost) beg you to expose them and defy them as you make your own solid and strong argument.
A few years ago I was called to jury duty. The judge, as he explained the duties of a juror, emphasized that our job was not to evaluate the defendant based on his or her size, color, ethnicity, tattoos or even personal or criminal history – but the evidence – and the evidence only.
When we are making an argument we also need solid and convincing evidence.
The most common categories of fallacies, as in a legal case or courtroom, are fallacies of relevance, ambiguity, or presumption.
When it comes to relevance, for example, consider how many times personal attacks derail a conversation or discredit a point of view by discrediting the person that holds it.
An argument, or evidence, is true – or false- no matter who proclaims it.
An appeal to consequences is an argument based on what might happen if a decision is (or is not) made. This line of reasoning is so dense with presumptions and “what ifs” that it spirals into incoherence almost immediately.
A related common distraction (hence a fallacy of relevance) is an appeal to the cost.
Have you ever noticed that politicians, in particular, instead of arguing against an issue, rail against the cost. When they support an issue, the focus is on the issue directly – not the cost.
Any topic – or pressing social issue – from slavery and human trafficking to war, taxes or climate change is immensely complicated and worthy of our deepest thought and attention.
Denial, deception and evasion, as tempting as easy as they often are, will never serve us well.
The fact that we were born into a situation, and have little or no direct personal responsibility for it, has no bearing on whether a system or policy is “right” or not.
Just because something has “always been done this way” or “everyone else is doing it” is no reason for us to do it – especially if we know it isn’t right. (1*)
Injustices of every kind, like slavery and discrimination, persist for generations because so few of us are willing to stand for what is right, no matter the cost.
And one near-certain way to figure out if something is “right” or not is to back away from the issue and consider whether you would like be on the other side of the decision. How do you think a previous generation would have thought about this? Would your children be glad you took this position? And perhaps most important, what would your mother think? (2*)
Consider these statements; all from the same person – certainly one of the most persuasive people of the 20th Century.
Do they sound like something you might hear today? Do you find yourself automatically accepting, rejecting or questioning these statements?
Does it matter who spoke them?
I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.
I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.
Great liars are also great magicians.
How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don’t think.
Does it matter that the author of these words was Adolf Hitler?
His operating principles were that public emotion would convince his non-thinking followers into any action he promoted, God was on his side and that he, or any “great” liar was also a “great” magician.
Would you follow a leader, boss or friend like that?
History shows that leaders like this lead their businesses, nations and families to the same place – chaos and self-destruction.
Standing up to people like this – and their lies – might feel like the ultimate lost cause, but I am convinced that the truth is always worth fighting for.
If you stand for truth, decency and justice, your customers, your children and future generations will thank you.
(1*) For more on logical fallacies, take a look here https://www.logicalfallacies.info/
(2*) Many politicians have changed their positions on an issue when it affects them directly and personally, on disability or LGBT rights for example. In other words, as long as the laws or policies impacted other people they supported them. But once they hit home, it was a different story. In spite of what they said, they were never operating “on principle”.